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At North Oakland’s Civicorps, “working green” is part of school

on September 21, 2008

story and audioslides by LINNEA EDMEIER

Sept. 21 — Reading, writing, arithmetic and recycling? For students of Civicorps Elementary School, in North Oakland, Saturday’s Coastal Cleanup Day wasn’t just another day at the beach. It was another day of fulfilling Civicorps’s mission of “participating in the life of the community.”

At Saturday’s event, Resek, a third grader at Civicorps giggled while he worked alongside his cousins and mother, Ashley Allison. They were cleaning up around the Lake Merritt Boathouse in Oakland.

“I like Civicorps because it’s very family and community oriented,” said A llison, “and involved.”

Having been featured in a recent episode of the Discovery Channel’s “Battleground Earth,” in which hip-hop artist Ludacris and rocker Tommy Lee try to “green-up,” Civicorps’s students are learning more than the traditional “3 R’s.” Civicorps Elementary, housed in a light green stucco building near the corner of Alcatraz and San Pablo, is one of the 34 charter schools in the Oakland Unified School District.

Civicorps staff say students gain a better understanding of how classroom lessons apply to their world by creating their own service projects, like teaching another school how to start a garden , or by taking part in community service projects, like Saturday’s Coastal Clean-up.

This kind of ongoing, organized participation in community is called service learning. “It’s a strategy for engaging children in their learning,” said the school’s development director, Rebecca Grove.

The national service learning movement, which started in the early 1900’s, stresses community service in coordination with academic learning. The movement is best known for higher education and adult programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Peace Corps. Civicorps staff considers civic engagement and environmental stewardship vital to creating capable and caring citizens even at a young age.

Passing students on a stairway, Angelina Vergara, the school’s Service Learning Coordinator, shakes hands, smiles and asks students, “How are you doing?” Vergara’s primary role is working with teachers on how to use their classroom learning to reach a real community. But she plays an equally important role in what the school calls its “civic literacy mission.” They’re trying to bring the abstract concept of citizenship to life, she said.

“I create and foster relationships with students, because we believe the relationships are a very important part of creating a safe culture and a culture that cares,” Vergara said. It also helps the students understand “what it means to be a caring responsible, respectful citizen,” she said.

Started in 2001, as a kindergarten through 4th grade charter, Civicorps Elementary now enrolls 205 Kindergarten through 5th grade students. Singing songs about recycling, learning to compost, helping other schools create their own gardens and reading at a neighborhood senior center, students are encouraged to keep thinking about how to change their world.

“This kind of learning empowers the students,” said Grove. “No matter what kind of situation they are coming from they feel empowered when they give back.”

Referring to the ongoing second grade reading with the elders project at the senior citizen, Grove said, “One mom told me, ‘I love this kind of learning because my child never says, why do I need to learn this?’” The children see the benefit of learning to read.”

Not only do students realize the value of learning, “they also form generational bonds,” said Grove.

Four years in the making, the creation of Civicorps involved input from service learning experts, a theologian and a school district who knew the community and student population. “As a charter school, we do have freedom in the curriculum,” said Grove, who has a background in education policy, points out.

Slideshow by Linnea Edmeier

But the school must still test, she said. “Our test scores aren’t where we want them to be, and while we don’t want to teach to the tests, we have made changes to make sure students are learning the standards,” she said.

While the school’s scores on the 2007 California Standards Tests (CSTs), were above Oakland’s district-wide scores, they remained lower than statewide scores. Even in areas like science, where Civicorps’s scores rose significantly from 2006, they still fell below the statewide percentage of students achieving at the state mandated Proficient or Advanced level.

When the scores are published, Grove said, “We want to be able to say, ‘We don’t care about test scores, but look how good they are anyway.’”

Civicorps is not the only charter school facing challenges. Closures due to mismanagement, financial trouble, inadequate enrollment, high staff turnover or a combination of other factors have led to skepticism about charter schools. The Oakland Unified School District, under pressure to prove fiscal responsibility as it tries to emerge from state control, is considering closing smaller schools in order to improve its financial stability, and charters will be examined as well, said OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint.

Like other public schools in California, charter schools receive funds on a per-student basis. As students leave district schools and enroll in charters, they take their state-allocated funds with them. Many of the administrative costs stay with the district, though, and each student who leaves is no longer contributing to the overall district pile of money. An additional financial drain is the need for trained staff to review, grant and oversee the administration of charters.

Charters face their own financial struggles as well. Some of their administrative and other indirect costs exceed their student funding. Civicorps Elementary has an advantage in that it is subsidized through The Recycling Services Team, a recycling program run with the help of California Department of Conservation and managed by high school and adult students attending Civicorps Schools Field Academy. The Field Academy helps students gain job skills while attending classes toward their high school diploma or GED.
But even with their “mother organization,” as Grove puts it, they work diligently to create partnerships with community organizations and businesses.

Financial and administrative challenges aside, once a charter is granted, “there is no guarantee that a charter will run a good school,” said Grove.

Looking out over the schoolyard, with its sturdy, newly-donated play structure and a student-maintained garden bursting with pumpkins and corn, Grove said she understands the push toward bigger schools. “More students bring in more cash, and there is less overhead,” she said.

“But being small fosters intimacy and learning,” said Grove. “If a student is struggling and can’t read, we can see that in the small environment.”

Parents like Allison tell Grove that the reason they bring their kids to Civicorps “is for the culture and personalized attention,” said Grove.

“There is an intimacy and familiarity between students in a small school environment,” Grove said. “They get to know each other, and where each other comes from.”

Civicorps doesn’t want to be seen “as an alternative,” said Grove, sitting at a color splashed, student-painted picnic table. “We want to share the best practices, not as a separate community, but one that helps other schools by perfecting the model here.”||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

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